Rodric Braithwaite: Is the USSR's Vietnam to be ours, too?

Our writer on learning from the Soviets in Afghanistan

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It was largely thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that the Soviet Union finally extricated itself from its bloody nine-year war in Afghanistan in reasonable order. As The IoS reports today, he now advises the Prime Minister to leave Afghanistan, and the sooner the better. It is good advice. But as he admits, it is easier said than done.

For the Soviets, Afghanistan was a worrying place, a neighbour that was a source of Islamic agitation, smuggled drugs, and American intrigue. It was a place where they needed influence, friends, and political stability. They believed that they had much to offer in return. Socialism had brought their own Central Asian Republics industry, healthcare, clean water, and education – for girls as well as boys. It could do the same in Afghanistan. Alas, the Afghans rejected what the Russians thought they had to offer.

Unfortunately, too, the Communists who took over in Kabul in April 1978 were fanatical, ignorant, and brutal. In March 1979, the Western city of Herat rose against them. They asked the Russians to send troops to help restore order. The Russians refused. But as the year advanced, the Afghan regime degenerated into bloody chaos.

So the Russians decided that something had to be done. They persuaded themselves that it could be done quite cheaply: send in some troops (far fewer than they had needed in Czechoslovakia a decade earlier), replace the Afghan leadership, train up the Afghan army and police, and bring the troops home within a year. They were not trying to expand their empire, to threaten Western oil supplies in the Gulf, or to secure themselves a warm water port: all that was Western propaganda.

But one Soviet official wondered gloomily: "Have we learnt nothing from Vietnam?" And indeed, within weeks of their invasion in December 1979, the Russians too were stuck in a bloody quagmire. They soon began to look for a way out, but ran up against a brick wall. Their opponents – the mujahedin and their sponsors in Pakistan – resolved to replace the Communists in Kabul by an Islamic government of their choosing. Many Americans were content that the Russians should bleed indefinitely; some thought that was fair compensation for their own sufferings in Vietnam.

Gorbachev came to power in March 1985 determined to cut the knot, but equally not to "flee in panic", as he puts it. In October, he told the Afghans that Soviet troops would leave in a year or 18 months. It was not until September of the following year that the mujahedin shot down the first Soviet helicopter with Stinger missiles supplied by the CIA. The Stinger was a formidable weapon but, contrary to Western myth, it had no effect on Gorbachev's decision to withdraw.

For three years, Gorbachev and his people negotiated doggedly for a deal that would preserve the honour of the Soviet Union, and perhaps persuade the Russian people that their sons had not died in vain. In the end, the Soviet army departed in good order, undefeated on the battlefield, leaving a friendly government under President Najibullah, and a competent army.

Then it fell apart. The Russians cut off the weapons and fuel on which Najibullah relied. The rebels entered Kabul. A civil war broke out, ended by the dubious victory of the Taliban.

Our goals in Afghanistan today are no different from those that Gorbachev set himself. Our armies are less likely than the Russians to be defeated on the battlefield. We too will leave in good order. But will we be any more successful than the Russians in leaving behind durable modern institutions and a viable Afghan government and army? Or will the country fall into a new civil war, and once more provide fertile soil for a new fanaticism?

No one knows.

Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador in Moscow, is author of 'Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89', to be published on Thursday

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